*** DEBUG END ***

Helping Britain to make it

21 December 2012

Roderic Dunnett considers the work of Basil Spence


Draughtsman's eye: design for the Hall of the Future at the "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the V&A, London, perspective by Basil Spence, 1946

Draughtsman's eye: design for the Hall of the Future at the "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the V&A, London, perspective by Basil Spence, 19...

Basil Spence: Buildings and projects
Louise Campbell, Miles Glendinning, and Jane Thomas, editors
RIBA Publishing £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50
(Use code CT524)  

THIS is massive tome, running to 19 chapters, and chock-full of superb illustrations, arising out of an Arts and Humanities Research Council project led by Louise Campbell of the University of Warwick and her two scholarly collaborators, who contribute substantially to the book.

One interesting thing about Sir Basil Spence (1907-76) - quite apart from his crowning glory, the new Coventry Cathedral, characterised here as "the single biggest ikon of post-war reconstruction" in Britain - is, the book indicates, the ways in which his career spans several distinct eras and trends.

Of these, the most significant was the keen interest that he showed, during its 1930s heyday, in the Modernist German-based Bauhaus movement, led by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, whose work he visited (soon after his honeymoon), and from which he de- rived much of the ethic of social responsibility which informed his work in post-war Britain, including his contributions to the 1946 "Britain Can Make It" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the 1951 Festival of Britain, at which Spence was a leading light.

He didn't build only ecclesiastical marvels: Scottish country houses, including quite self-indulgent castellated wonders built from scratch, entered his remit, as work flourished after the war. He built, and helped revolutionise, army barracks and parliamentary buildings. By 1929, he was assisting Sir Edwin Lutyens, and some of the latter's versatility and good judgement washed off on the younger man. Spence's superb draughtsmanship extended to painting: some rewarding self-portraits are included here, and his youthful sketches - of Pugin's work, for instance - already look masterly.

Every facet of his work is explored in invigorating detail here, in a style that is as accessible as it is academic. This applies to all of the contributors; and the balance is about right, too: the early years get 40 pages, the 1950s 80, the '60s 100, and the '70s - up to Spence's death, aged only 69 - a further 30 pages.

The index is thorough, and nicely presented in four columns. Coventry gets a closely argued 32-page chapter from Louise Campbell herself; the illustrations of various stages in the process stand testimony to the complexity, and the triumph, of the proposed, emerging, and finished project, the result of a wildly contested architectural competition announced in 1951.

You don't get a better imprimatur than that of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who have supported the project so much as to publish the book. In a spectac-ular large format, it is, surely, one of the landmark books on British architecture of the past half-century. Recommending it very highly is a pleasure and a duty.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available


Inspiration: The Influences That Have Shaped My Life

September - November 2024

St Martin in the Fields Autumn Lecture Series 2024

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


Visit our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)